Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Another voice (Sunday Reflections for November 29, 2009)

Distress continues over the actions of last August’s ELCA churchwide assembly. In the midst of reports of the ELCA’s financial problems and churches leaving the denomination (the number still looks small), thanks to Susan Hogan at prettygoodlutherans.com I found this column by Rev. Lynne Silva-Breen. She is an ELCA pastor now working as a family therapist in Burnsville, MN. I thought her explanation of the ELCA’s policy change on gay clergy to be remarkably gracious and her explanation of how Lutherans use the Bible to be especially clear and insightful.

God’s greater, graceful purpose for the world

In my last column in early September, I began to reflect on the news from this summer’s national assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Amidst the discussions on the central work of the church – to share the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ with others and to put that good news into practice - the delegates took up some important internal business about who can become an ordained church pastor. I wrote last time that issues of leadership are not new for the church; such debates have stirred anxiety since the first century.

Our recent leadership anxieties have centered on gay and lesbian clergy in partnered, monogamous relationships. (The ELCA has ordained celibate homosexual clergy for some years.) For the first time in all the years of difficult public argument on the issue, the governing body of the largest Lutheran church in the country voted that married or partnered and monogamous gay and lesbian people may become pastors of its church. By slow, deliberate, and prayerful debate, and by the narrowest of margins, the vote established the new practice for the ELCA. Meetings are being held even now to revise the current process so these men and women may serve congregations who wish to call them.

My hope in this column is to state as simply and as clearly as I can why I think this decision was made, and how it fits, from my point of view, with an evangelical Lutheran way of understanding the Christian faith.

Here are my two central points: firstly, that Lutherans revere the Bible as the inspired, not inerrant, Word of God; and that secondly, we understand that God’s kingdom of grace and justice is present in the world, and we strive to discern it and join with it.

Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic monk who led the religious revolution called the Reformation in 16th century Europe, was a biblical scholar. Lutherans take the Bible so seriously, we study it with our whole mind and heart. Generations of historical, literary, and linguistic scholarship shows our Bible to be a small library of documents, written over centuries of time, by many different authors with varying points of view. We read these 66 books with reverence, knowing that the authors in prayer and power of the Holy Spirit wrote them for the instruction and inspiration of their listeners and readers.

Viewing the Bible as inspired yet not perfect in any human way, many believe that the few passages in the Bible regarding homosexuality reflect older cultural and religious understandings that most current science, culture and experience challenges. In the same way that the Bible condones the selling of slaves and the stoning of adulterers, many have come to believe that those viewpoints are not divine law to us. Instead, most Lutherans read scripture not for word-for-word instruction, but to see, believe and understand the central and timeless purposes of God. And woven throughout all the words and stories, poems and history of the Bible is the message of God’s grace toward the world, and God’s continuous call to us to participate in this grace.

This is why I think the majority of Lutherans at that meeting voted to extend the clergy roster to partnered gay/lesbian clergy. They voted not from an inerrant view of scripture, but from a larger biblical confidence in God’s grace. The God we see alive in Jesus loves every person, everywhere, especially the poor, powerless and outcast. It was for all that God suffered in crucifixion. We who try to follow God in faith are called to loving relationships with God and one another, and to take that passion for the powerless into daily life. Gay and lesbian people are among those who have been cast out, abused, hated and murdered for their sexual orientation. Those who voted “yes” this summer thought it was time to open the leadership circle to those gay and lesbian people who have been blessed with faithful partners and who feel called to serve the church.

Just as it was once unthinkable that women should be pastors in our church, it has been unthinkable until now that partnered gay and lesbian people could be called by God to serve. The vote this summer, I believe, was a vote of risk: that by including these men and women, we would be on the side of God’s greater, graceful purpose for the world.


lsb.lmft said...

Thanks for sharing my thoughts with your own readers, and for your own positive comments about my column :)

Doug said...

You're very welcome--I was glad to do it.